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First Looks: StarOffice 5.0- by Nenad Milenkovic
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Nenad Milenkovic is an experienced OS/2 user, specialized in networking and communications, and the best known OS/2 advocate in Yugoslavia. He has published two books and now writes for mainstream print computer magazines, but welcomes the opportunity to contribute to a magazine read by people with similar views and preferences as his own.

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Summary: It's the "other" office suite for OS/2 next to Lotus SmartSuite, and in version 5.0 (which should make it to the international market early, unlike its earlier versions) it's grown bigger yet. We take a first-looks at it in this issue.

There's probably no software package that created so much controversy among OS/2 users as Star Division's StarOffice.

The German based company introduced itself to OS/2 five years ago by offering their StarWriter in both Windows and OS/2 versions. For international users it ended then. In the meantime we saw two Beta versions of both StarOffice v3 and StarOffice v4, but it wasn't until late after StarOffice 4.0's beta that a shrink-wrapped version actually went on sale outside of Germany. But within Germany the suite is quite popular, with some PC vendors even pre-loading StarOffice onto their computers. But as a growing (i.e. still small) company, Star Division decided to use their resources for solidifying it's product on the already reached German market, instead of extending themselves beyond their size by investing into the expensive realm of international distribution, marketing and support.

Most of the controversy surrounding StarOffice resulted mostly from their "teasing" of international market with solid beta versions that would expire and never result in product you can buy. Many "users-to-be" were disappointed, and many were assured that Star Division will never be able to release it's product to international customers.

Another controversial issue was the fact that StarOffice is modeled after Microsoft's Office suite. Some die-hard "anything but Microsoft" users protested, called it a MS Office clone, and refused to use such thing on their Microsoft-free systems. But although we agree that Microsoft's interface is not the best, it is the most widely used. With MS Office used by 90% of office-suite users, copying its user interface represents not only the safe choice, but a choice that can help MS Office users migrate to StarOffice with ease.

The final controversy is StarDesktop, the integrating component for StarOffice documents. It's modeled after Windows 95 interface (with addition of Explorer-like tree at the left side of Desktop). OS/2 users felt that an OS/2 office package should integrate with Workplace Shell and that documents should be organized in WPS folders instead of a need to access them via separate application (i.e. from the Office itself). They neglected the fact that StarOffice v4 was, actually, much more "OS/2 aware" than, for example, Lotus SmartSuite which was almost a straight Open32 based port. If you forgot about StarDesktop, turned off "task bar" and deactivated "Beamer", you'd end up with classical text processor or spreadsheet in a window, with only difference being inability to "tear-off" individual documents into separate windows: you'd use them as MDI children in a main application window. StarOffice used Warp4-style notebooks for all dialogs, menus were consistent in behavior with the rest of the system, and drag & drop between documents and WPS folders worked quite well.

The Waiting Is Over

Time has worked favorably for Star Division and it looks like that company can finally afford to include producing of international versions in development costs. A few months ago, Star Division offered to the international market version 4 of their package, with Service Pack 3 applied and with free license for upcoming version 5. Simultaneously, some rumors about new features have spread among OS/2 users which resulted in renewed interest for the product. This autumn we will finally get full-blown boxed version of StarOffice v5 International, and not only for Win32 and OS/2, but for Linux, Solaris and Macintosh, too. In addition, there will be Java and Windows 3.1 versions available, but those will require StarOffice Server for functioning.

Earlier this month, Star Division shipped "PreFinal" versions for Windows and OS/2. But for English-speaking users, only the Windows "PreFinal" version is available for now. Therefore, we examined German version for OS/2 for our First Looks.

Our first encounter was a surprise: a nifty looking and functional installation program, but with "hard-coded" Win95-like window controls, toolbars, etc. When installation was completed, we rebooted, only to find out that, except for the "StarOffice 5.0" folder and two program objects in it (one for main application, another for Install/Uninstall tool) no other WPS objects were created: no templates were available in "Templates" folder, not even associations were created for opening documents directly from OS/2 Desktop. Yet this was all offered by previous version.

A quick look at the "readme" file and StarDivision's Web site explained what was happening. In order to release the "PreFinal" version as soon as possible, Star Division omitted WPS integration totally and left it for the final release. Therefore, you cannot drag & drop WPS objects to and from StarOffice documents in PreFinal version, only dragging between two Desktops (OS/2 and Star's) works. So, there's no reason for panic, we can expect WPS integration at least at v4's level in GA version.

What else is not in this PreFinal? Most notably, performance and resource usage will be "significantly" improved (they'd better do that!), totally new MS Office documents import/export filters will be ready and an "OS/2 Look & Feel" will be finalized (more about "looks" and "feels" below). Finally, components that are new or completely revised for this version are still not stable enough.

Having all that in mind, we'll limit ourselves on showing what's good, bad and new in this package, and discuss performance and stability when final version is available. For those who saw Beta of version 4, we can only say that this version is much more stable and notably slower than that Beta was.

What's inside?

StarOffice is an application suite with an exceptionally long list of features and possibilities that it offers out-of-the box. The only problem is that you have no choice: either you get it all or don't get it at all. Tight integration between modules and code reuse account for that, but some users will find this concept inflexible. In order to write letter you will not have to bear with spreadsheet, presentation software and database in memory (dynamic memory allocation solved that issue years ago), but in order to use any component you'll still bear with the StarDesktop in memory, whether you're using it or not. It's not a big deal if you're utilizing StarOffice all the time for some heavy-duty work, but if you have to start it just to get mail from internet, it's definitely overkill. However, SO is obviously not indented for those needing only mail or news features, but for those in need for a full featured office suite package who will "live" in it nearly all the time. Inability to purchase components separately is, however, completely another issue. But most people buy complete office packages anyway and the fact that "what's good for most of people is good enough for you" is an ancient wisdom that's made at least one man the richest on the planet.

So, what will you get? First of all, there's StarDesktop (.GIF, 90K), with it's "Explorer" tree for navigation, "TaskBar" for task switching, a "Beamer" drop-down panel with context-sensitive content (database entries, clip arts from Gallery...), a main tool-bar (.GIF, 3K) which offers common functions (like entering URLs, browsing forward and backward, undoing and redoing actions, showing and hiding desktop components) and dynamic menu bar that adapts itself to the work that the user is currently doing in the program.

But do we need another Desktop on top of the one already provided by operating system? Well, most office suites offer some kind of integration tools, implemented as some sort of launch-pad interface or drawers with folders, such as SmartSuite's SmartCenter (missing from OS/2 version but present in the Windows version). If that "integrating component" is as good and has all features as the basic user interface of the whole operating system (Windows 95/NT) I see it as a plus, not drawback.

Yes, it could have achieved the same effect with Workplace Shell (WPS) extensions, but this way you can set up StarOffice on client machine without the WPS. Then StarDesktop looks and behaves the same on OS/2, Windows, Macintosh, Linux, Solaris and Java. StarOffice is not developed for one OS and then ported to others, it's developed for a "platform" called StarView, which is actually a big and complex programmer's library that is already ported and implemented on number of other operating systems (it started as a library for developing Windows and OS/2 programs from one source base, which explains the good OS/2 support). Being such, it must provide common features on all platforms, even if it includes adding support for some functions that an operating system does not support (like Object Linking and Embedding in the OS/2 version).

The Desktop And Explorer

Most important for end-users, Explorer's tree is task-centric, and in it's root you'll find "Workplace" (which lists all disk drives available on system), "Work" folder (for your own documents), "Bookmarks", "Samples", "Gallery", "Scheduler", "Address Book" and even the entire on-line documentation ("Help") for the suite. Contrary to version 4, there's no "Desktop" folder in it. The role of the "Desktop" folder was confusing (compared with "Work" or the user's own folders) in previous version, so Star Division removed it and offered one-click access to it from taskbar:

Whenever you want to open new window (document, web page or folder) from Explorer, you'll have to select "Desktop" or a new window will come up in place of currently opened one.

The Components

Other StarOffice components are not so original, and what follows is the list of included modules with short explanations:

StarWriter is a full-featured word processor with an integrated web/HTML browser and editor (both WYSIWYG and source-level), automation "wizards" (AutoPilots) for predefined templates, and many DTP-oriented enhancements. It's very similar to Microsoft's Word, both in features and user interface. However, it offers numerous enhancements over it, both in functionality and the way it interacts with user.

StarCalc is a spreadsheet module that also borrows a lot from Microsoft's offering.

StarImpress is there for business presentations, quite on par with PowerPoint.

StarBase is completely rewritten for this version and is stated to improve significantly the ways databases are created, managed and reported in StarOffice.

StarDraw is the module for drawing vector images (something like Corel Lite), but extended with OpenGL based 3D effects (with texture support), and few very useful templates -- including the one for a CD cover. StarImpress actually builds on it to provide the presentation package.

StarImage is used for working with bitmap images: photographs, scans, etc. Certainly far from a Photo Shop killer, but quite capable and applicable for most needs of average users, including color adjustment, special effects, various drawing tools and decent number of supported formats. It supports scanning of images -- but not in the OS/2 version (even though OS/2 supports both TWAIN and SANE which StarOffice uses on Windows and Unix platforms).

StarChart can help in producing graphs and charts, and is also used by the StarCalc module for those purposes.

StarMath is equation editor that will be welcomed by users of good old Ventura Publisher for DOS/GEM since it uses similar syntax. It has a "command line" interface and allows very fast input once you become familiar with it, but lacks flexibility since it's limited to built-in symbols. It's mostly used from other suite components.

StarSchedule is a Personal Information Manager (PIM) completely new in this package that should fill in the gap of missing Organizer-like functionality. It offers very good integration but slightly odd and un-intuitive user interface. Once you learn it, it's quite efficient, but lacks some advanced features.

StarMail and StarDiscussion will be mostly used for accessing Internet mail and news. The corporate user will be glad to hear that in addition to POP/SMTP and IMAP4 protocols, StarOffice also supports VIM (Vendor-Independent Messaging) protocol which is used by the Lotus Notes and cc:Mail messaging platforms.

All those components are tightly integrated and documents created with one can contain frames with others in OLE-style (Star Division actually implemented an OLE clone for it's OS/2 version). The integrating glue is the StarBasic macro/progamming language (.GIF, 43K) which is much like Microsoft's Visual Basic for Applications but with slightly different (and extended) structure of object classes. Advanced users of MS's Office will welcome the fact that similarities between two packages extend to such high degree. You can also use StarScript (a renamed JavaScript) or Java. For Java, StarOffice uses whatever Java Virtual Machine (JVM) you happen to have installed on your system, so it's not kept lagging when you want to upgrade to IBM's new versions.

What's new?

Users of version 4 (or those who have tried international Beta versions) will start counting new features as soon as they start the application. When you start it, you end up with full-screen "Integrated Desktop".

While in this mode (which is default), you'll interact only with the user interface offered by StarDesktop. There's no title bar or other standard window controls for application. Don't panic (as I did!), just press Ctrl-Shift-I (or select appropriate option from "View" menu) and you'll see the very same desktop, but "captured" within OS/2 window. Now that you are reassured that you control the situation, feel free to explore further.

StarDesktop borrows heavily from Macintosh and Windows 95. There's Mac-like menu bar at the top of the screen which changes contents based on active document type or document part, and at the bottom of the screen you'll find the "Task Bar" almost identical to the one offered by Windows 95. Between them is an application area which is, at startup, occupied with StarDesktop's "Desktop" folder and the "Explorer" tree on the left side of the screen. What's borrowed from OS/2? Well, not much. If we count out what was already "borrowed" by Windows 95, only the ability to set backgrounds individually for each folder remains.

A very attractive new feature is a customizable "look & feel". In previous versions, StarOffice used GUI controls that the operating system provided. Now it does all of its GUI stuff internally, which allows you to have, for example, Macintosh (.GIF, 27K) or X-Windows "look & feel" on OS/2, but also an OS/2 "look & feel" if you're forced to use another platform. Watching Mac-like title-bars and buttons in OS/2 is really cool, but this introduced some notable performance problems. Since the OS/2 "look & feel" is not yet ready, it raises concerns how it will be implemented. In the "PreFinal" version, selecting OS/2 brings you (close to) Warp4-style window controls and nothing else. Buttons, notebook tabs, menus, check-boxes and other controls are Windows-like, and I particularly hated the scroll-bars (which don't react when you press them!). We'll have to wait and see how Star Division will implement this, but even if they manage to mimic the look of OS/2, it's very unlikely that StarOffice's "internal" windows will benefit from OS/2 PM enhancers like X'it, DragText or CandyBarZ.

StarWriter will now import MS Word 97 and AmiPro documents (no Describe filter is available), it has some advanced "groupware" functions, and very nice feature called "Direct Cursor". Until now, piece of paper had one advantage over text-processors: you were able to lower your hand anywhere you wanted and start writing. With word-processor, you must press "Enter" and "Tab" several times, or even create frames to position your text at will. "Direct cursor" will do all that for you. After activation, you just click where you want to type and type.

DTP improvements include more precise positioning of characters, lining up of columns and ability to flow text from one frame to another (newspaper-style). Text can wrap around irregularly shaped images (actually, you draw boundaries for wrapping, using very similar tool you use when creating image-maps for web pages), etc. Unfortunately, StarWriter still uses an old fashioned way of formatting text (menu, dialog, set parameters with preview, OK button to see what you did, than all over again). Lotus Word Pro's InfoBox which integrates both direct-in-text and style editing with real-time changes is light years ahead. Also, I miss the ability from version 4 to dock the "Stylist" to screen edges, or to "undock" and rearrange toolbars, for that matter.

StarCalc is improved mostly in area of automation tasks, but advanced users will also like a new feature that lets you browse a graphical representation (map) of formula dependencies. Those who prepare reports will welcome some advanced formatting options, including ability to freely rotate text contained in a cell.

StarBase is completely rewritten and now can use SQL (DB2) and JDBC data sources in addition to dBase, ODBC and "text". Of course, those data sources integrate with other components via "Beamer", for drag & drop operation, creation of mailing lists, etc. And, no, StarBase is not modeled after MS Access. It focuses on integration with other Office components, not creating of custom applications (although that's possible).

Internet components are improved, too. With mail and news components rewritten, you can select from number of pre-formatted layouts for reading messages, apply filters for incoming ones, etc. The same principle goes for both Internet (POP/SMPT/IMAP4) and VIM messaging. StarOffice can search LDAP directories and provides users with pre-configured search tool for searching with various Internet search engines simultaneously. The integrated Web browser is not some ugly Web Explorer orphan, but quite nice application, somewhere between Netscape 3 and 4, capable of supporting JavaScript, Java applets and plug-ins. It will surely save you from loading Netscape while in StarOffice, but whether you use it for your general Web surfing will depend on your own preferences.

TaskBar now shows all active programs from "Window List", but that is, smartly enough, only when "Integrated Desktop" feature is enabled. StarSchedule, a completely new component, shows promise. It integrates well with the address book and other system components (you can be alarmed remotely via e-mail, for example), but still needs refinement. Scheduling Internet downloads would be nice too (it was possible with version 4, but something happened with DOWNLOAD.EXE in v5). Yet the coveted integration with a PalmPilot hand-held is available only in the Windows version.

Since StarOffice supports frames you can create web pages with them, but you're not limited to that. Frames in a frameset can contain any document SO is able to display, which allows you to set up and save customized multi-document layout for situations where you need to access more than one document at the time. This feature is not new to v5, but is easily overlooked.

OS/2 issues

StarOffice is an excellent application that will satisfy most users' needs. While the PreFinal version for OS/2 has some rough edges, it proved usable and so filled with features that just listing them would require another article like this one. I do hope that Star Division will comply with it's promises and improve performance for the GA version and finish the OS/2 look & feel. If they make it possible to separately select "look" and separately select "feel" that would be perfect. Everyone would use OS/2 "feel", but having Mac or X-Windows controls on the screen for wouldn't hurt.

I would also like to see some limitations that are specific for OS/2 version removed. For example, StarOffice doesn't use the new international (Unicode) support available in Warp 4, but instead the 10-year old, DOS-originated CODEPAGE system which limits users options if he needs to work in more than one non-US alphabet. Furthermore, it still has that odd behavior that originated back in StarOffice 3 days where you need to "re-select" a font at the beginning of typing for an "accented" national character to appear. You don't need to change it, just to select it from drop-down list again! Unicode support is, according to Star Division's officials, planned for future version.

Also, I see no reason why scanning of images is not supported under OS/2. There are at least two implementations of the TWAIN standard (which they use for Windows) and pretty current port of SANE (which they use for Unix versions). If they yet decide to add one of those, my vote goes for SANE since it's free, but we will not be picky if they implement TWAIN instead.

Another issue is availability of StarOffice Server for OS/2. Although it would represent the ideal supplement to IBM's WorkSpace On-Demand (practically removing the need for Win32 clients or Citrix application server for MS Office users - they could use either OS/2 native or even StarOffice for Java), there's no OS/2 version of SO Server planned! It was publicly announced almost year ago, but for some reason Star Division ended up with StarOffice Server for Solaris and Windows NT only. Maybe salability improvements in upcoming Aurora will motivate Star Division to reconsider it's decision, since it could easily bring them many of the WSOD seats IBM has sold this year.


It's obvious that from this version Star Division will join the "big-three" group of office suite application makers. Until now it was always a "follow-up" with "most features present" and "some advanced features lacking". On company's site there's a very long feature-by-feature comparison with MS Office 97, and although such lists can be misleading, it's completeness and size assures us that there's not much else to ask for, if anything.

Star Division has solidified it's product and if it manages to capitalize on it's unique features (especially platform independence) it can do even more than just joining the group, because other Microsoft's rivals show tire and lack of ambitions. However, multi-platform support is important only in multi-platform world, it makes no difference in Wintel-only environment. So giving Linux version away for free (for personal use) makes sense, but in my opinion it would make sense to do the same for all other non-Windows platforms (for personal use, off course). It would help OS/2, Macintosh and Linux users to "stay current" with latest in mainstream office suite applications, and they will be not forced to use Windows for those.

From OS/2 user's stand point, StarOffice is not only worth looking at, but it deserves very serious considerations. There's no doubt that StarOffice will become THE office suite for OS/2 in forthcoming years, considering Lotus' failure to deliver much more than clumsy Open32-based port and their lack of commitment for future revisions. If you're going to use some "up-to-date" office application suite two years from now, it's very unlikely that it will something other than StarOffice, so maybe it's right time to begin getting used to it? Warpstock attendees will be among the first ones who will see finalized version of StarOffice, so if you want to see more than we were able to present here, pack your bags and... see you in Chicago.

* * *

StarOffice 5.0, PreRelease

by Star Division
Copyright © 1998 - Falcon Networking ISSN 1203-5696
October 16, 1998